While it’s unlikely that the basics of refuse collection operations – trucks, containers, and personnel – will change dramatically during the next few years, external issues beyond the industry will shape how and what we do. Whether it’s the type of fuel used in the vehicle to meet clean-air mandates, the design of cab interiors to minimize repetitive injuries, or the permitting of trucks to travel certain roads, the first decade of the new millennium will provide an odyssey of epic proportions. It may be reality, but it won’t necessarily be virtual.
Don’t look for major breakthroughs in collection technologies during the next 10 years. It’s not likely that recycling or the collection of solid waste will be done with anything but large trucks moving down the street picking up containerized waste. Incremental improvements in many parts of the system will continue to make news. But these enhancements will be designed to squeeze out the last bits of component efficiencies and won’t necessarily mean a cosmic shift in the basics.
We expect the most likely forces to occur in those areas that are beyond our control. These include economic streamlining, personnel development, employee safety and ergonomics, diversion mandates, material bans, environmental-quality standards, and congestion management. Each of these issues will have an impact on how we go down the street and pick up the trash. And each will affect the economics of our operations far beyond the simple basics of trucks, drivers, and disposal sites.
Economic streamlining is the elimination of wasteful duplication in a system. If we think about the typical refuse collection system, each physical location in the entire world generates some byproduct material – whether it’s recyclables, organics, semitoxics, or refuse – that must be removed from the location and transported to another destination for processing, remanufacturing, or destruction. The refuse business is designed to pick up this material and transport it to that final destination. It doesn’t matter what type of truck is used, whether frontloader, rolloff, rearloader, or automated or manual sideloader, nor does it matter who owns or operates the truck, since the color of truck doesn’t change the basic collection and transportation function.
If you have an open-competition system, the community or market experiences economic regulation through that competition. If Company A costs too much, then you can go to Company B. But both Company A and Company B have duplication in their respective systems that reduces their efficiencies. When two companies merge, they gain efficiencies through the elimination of overlapping routes and duplicated dispatching, administration, and marketing functions. The customer and the municipality gain efficiency as well; it’s more cost-effective to have one company pick up two side-by-side businesses than to have one company serve one business and another company serve the other. Routing efficiencies occur that reduce the travel time between stops, saving fuel costs and eliminating multiple trucks destroying a city’s streets. But the amount of waste picked up per stop doesn’t change. The truck still fills with the same number of cubic yards or tons regardless of who’s driving the truck.
Municipalities that handle some or all of their collection needs have the opportunity to implement economic streamlining as well; their failure to do so could eventually lead to privatization. The same motivation that drives private companies to merge can be captured by municipal governments as well – elimination of duplicate management systems and more emphasis on equipment and personnel utilization. Municipalities often act as if they were a stand-alone mom-and-pop trash company with a bureaucratic infrastructure. They spec and buy their own equipment through a time-consuming bid process. They hire personnel through civil-service recruitment that requires multiple layers of approval before the employee reports to work.
These approaches create situations in which the municipality cannot respond effectively to changing market conditions. If a municipality is competing with a large regional or national company and the demand for rolloff service suddenly increases, the municipality with its limited equipment and hiring ability is forced to turn away business. The private company responds to the changing demand by reassigning equipment and personnel from other divisions and immediately captures that changing market.
The increasing cost of collection equipment, coupled with growing shortages of trained and capable drivers and operators, is further pressuring both municipal and private collection systems. This external force will drive further merger and acquisitions on the private side. It will also mean more pressure on municipalities, possibly even forcing them out of the business. To respond to the opportunity for economic streamlining, municipal operators need to join together in strategic alliances that allow better leverage of equipment buying, spare utilization, and personnel hiring. While municipalities can piggyback on each other’s purchasing decisions, a more proactive approach is to join together in planning acquisition and assignment of equipment, the utilization of maintenance and repair facilities, and the hiring and training of personnel.
Recent reports indicate that unemployment is at its lowest level in nearly 30 years. Couple this with the increasing technological advancements in equipment that demand higher levels of education and proficiency in an industry that is less than sexy, and the result is a greater problem with hiring and keeping quality employees.
“In the next 10 years, there’s going to be some serious labor problems or labor shortages in our industry,” states Doug Mass, president of Maple Leaf Disposal Ltd. in Port Coquitlam, BC. “If you went into a high school and polled the kids, I don’t think there would be more than 10% of an entire school that would tell you they want to be a truck driver. They certainly are not going to be [excited] about working in the waste industry, although there is good money in it. Most of the students that come in through my business here are painting and cleaning bins and doing things like that. None of them is really all that interested in manual labor. They’re more interested in working on computers. It’s very, very tough to find good students who are actually schooled in working. I’m not sure exactly why. We went through a lot of young men and women who literally just don’t know how to work. That really concerns me. We went through that here in the ’70s, and we got a really poor quality of driver. That was really hard on customer service and equipment. I’m pretty comfortable that, in 10 years, we’re going to face the same situation.”
The shortage of drivers and mechanics nationwide has many solid waste collection managers thinking about their training and recruitment programs. Ironically, the shortage of trained staff comes at a time when the traditional venues for developing such talent are drying up. Trade schools and junior colleges are reducing or eliminating these nuts-and-bolts programs in favor of more technologically oriented programs such as computer networking and programming. This shortage is forcing solid waste professionals to explore other alternatives, including offering scholarships, intern programs, and partnering with schools and even component manufacturers in order to expand the talent base.
Another area that is getting a hard look is the total package of benefits offered to attract and retain good employees. Employees are not only concerned about the dollar-per-hour salary, but also with other value-added features. Some of the creative benefits municipalities and private companies are using include productivity and safety bonuses, sales incentives, stock options, retirement packages, and even enhanced vacation opportunities that target the employee’s family as well as the employee.
The City of Mesa, AZ, has developed a productivity program that recognizes its most productive operators. Called the All Star Program, it provides monthly and quarterly recognition of those drivers who go above and beyond the basics of just emptying the garbage cans. “We want to call operators ‘All Stars,’” says Tim Mahon, solid waste administrative supervisor. “Not just in the sense of productivity. We measure the number of loads they’ve carried, their hours spent, how many containers they’ve picked up per hour – those types of productivity measures. We also want to measure them for safety, customer service, truck maintenance, and willingness to work overtime, train other operators, and drive different styles of equipment. We incorporate that into an All Star list of 10 employees every month and every quarter. We don’t want to sacrifice everything for productivity by beating the trucks to death or sacrificing customer service by not putting the containers down correctly or spilling material on the ground. All those things factor into it, and they’re rewarded on a point system. It seems to be working fairly successfully so far.”
The refuse industry is a tough business, taking its toll on equipment and personnel. In some parts of the country, manual collection still dominates. This means a worker is lifting and tossing overweight cans or bags into a frontloader box or a side or rear hopper, risking back strains, torn ligaments, and other injuries. One of the key factors that moved the industry aggressively forward with automation was the need to reduce workers’ on-the-job injuries and corresponding claims. The movement toward automation, however, has brought with it a new set of employee safety and ergonomic issues in the form of repetitive-movement injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation could force solid waste managers to rethink how they have their employees perform their jobs. For some agencies, the threat of civil or criminal penalties resulting from these regulations might move them toward changing collection strategies. “OSHA regulations are going to increase costs depending on what level they’re implemented toward collection,” points out Harvey Gershman, a principal with Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., a solid waste consulting firm in Fairfax, VA. “It looks like it’s going to be reasonably aggressive; that’s the fear. But these are safety regulations, and perhaps the industry has been ignored for too long. That’ll work itself out and hopefully be applied equally across the board. I see the OSHA regulations being a positive influence if they push us more toward automated collection.”
While much of the employee injury potential in residential operations is mitigated with the shift to automation, one area that will come under sharper scrutiny for potential employee injuries is commercial collection using frontloaders. While the goal may be to use single-operator trucks to reduce cost and increase productivity, a driver’s ability to move a loaded 2-, 3- or 4-yd. bin from a side yard or an alley out to the truck will more than likely be under examination. Even with two-person crews, the need to wheel a bin weighing up to 1,000 lb. over irregular surfaces in varying weather conditions while the truck is running unattended will eventually come under review. This could result in restrictions as to the distance from truck to bin enclosure and could require reconsideration of access to bins.
In new developments, it’s possible to locate bin enclosures where a direct stab-in is feasible. But what about older areas where the placement of refuse bins was an afterthought? For efficiency’s sake, it’s desirable to maximize the size of each bin in order to pick up more weight per stop. But safety concerns might limit the size and weight of a bin that an employee can legitimately move, the distance that the bin may be moved, and the movement to surface areas that are level and free of irregularities. These concerns could ultimately affect the way that commercial operations are conducted and cause alternative operations to be considered, including the use of shuttle trucks moving bins from areas that are not directly accessible by the larger frontloader. Such safety regulations would result in increases in the cost of commercial collection.
While safety concerns will be a viable force on the collection industry, ergonomics will also influence the design of truck cabs and other aspects of collection. Current transportation regulations allow up to a 12-hour operating day; the need to pick up the trash will often force collection operations to push equipment and staff to that limit. But asking employees to remain seated in a single seat operating a switch or joystick for that many hours might invite stress and chronic injuries. How routes are laid out, the design and placement of controls, and amenities such as air conditioning, premium sound systems, and onboard refreshment centers might require the earlier replacement or retrofitting of equipment in order to improve and enhance the operator’s environment. These concerns will add to the cost of doing business but might be necessary in order to avoid further regulation or loss of key employees.
Ask any old-time garbage man, and he’ll tell you that the most cost-effective manner for collection is to dump everything into one bin. With the advent of waste-diversion mandates and the need to recycle, the corresponding increases in collection costs have been understood. The ability to separate up to three streams—solid waste, recyclables, and greenwaste—from the residential stream has led the charge to pushing diversion rates toward the magical 50% and beyond. But the indirect costs of damaged pavement from the need to operate three collection trucks on a typical residential street, as well as air-quality concerns and operating costs, have many solid waste managers looking for more effective and efficient ways to meet diversion mandates while controlling costs.
“Trying to balance greater diversion with efficient collection is going to be an issue,” notes Gershman. “You’ve got two extremes: communities that haven’t embraced recycling or are talking about getting out of the business because disposal is so cheap, and communities that want to meet state goals and objectives and are getting in with both feet. The latter are being more creative with how they do that: combined collections, co-collection, and collection of single stream at the residential side and the commercial side to provide for greater diversion levels and a convenient way to store it before it’s collected. Of course you need a MRF [materials recovery facility] that can match the collected materials and process them properly. You’re going to see MRFs converted to single stream in the future to match where communities are moving forward with more aggressive collection programs.”
For those communities that opt to stay in the diversion game and not risk a legal test of a state’s power to establish waste-diversion mandates, the movement toward one pass–two stream collection of the three traditional diversion streams holds the greatest promise for reducing costs. The challenge will be in fine-tuning the collection process with market standards. The result may be a movement toward the higher-value and higher-volume materials in the wastestream that can withstand contamination. While glass is a component that adds weight and plastic adds volume, their cost to separate, ability to contaminate, and resulting low value when separated might make it more feasible to leave them in the solid waste side and focus on maximizing the fibers and metals recovery. That coupled with organics recycling, which includes foodwastes and the classic putrescences, will maximize the collection and diversion efficiencies.
Hand in hand with the movement toward maximizing waste diversion in the collection system is the growing demand for the ban of potentially toxic materials contained in common household items. Household hazardous waste collection programs have become common in most collection systems and have been successful in diverting from the trash can such products as household cleaners, acids, pesticides, and paints. New emphasis, however, will be placed on banning from the disposal system such things as thermometers, televisions, cellular telephones, fluorescent lamps, ballasts, and computers because of the potential discharge of mercury, cadmium, lead, and other heavy metals. This regulation is going to mean less efficiency for collection systems since these materials require separation, storage, and specialized recycling or disposal. Markets for these materials will be needed and will not end up as a cost additive to the collection system.
“I think there are special challenges,” comments Gershman. “Frankly, the collection system can’t afford to collect them separately the way it is now. Having advance deposit fees on materials like that, as we do on tires in many places, would support a separate collection system. For example, let’s focus on computer equipment. If the recycler got a fee for every one of those he turned in for reprocessing, you’d have some volume that could support collecting those items from offices. Having drop-off locations in the convenience centers for such equipment will be important again if there’s a stream of revenue that can come back to those who collect it, which will help make that happen. Electronics recycling is fledgling right now. It will grow as more units are out there, but it won’t grow as fast or respond as fast unless there’s some revenue to support that activity.”
Such programs exist in certain communities. In Mesa, the city provides for the collection of some of these items from its offices. The city currently collects fluorescent tubes as well as flashlight and radio batteries from the police and fire departments. “That’s really what we think is pushing the system, because the diversion rate is going to be either mandated or arbitrarily set, so now is the time to do it,” states Tim Mahon. “We contract with a private vendor and they supply, in the case of the batteries, the collection buckets, and then we ship them from here. The fluorescent-tube supplier provides us with the boxes in which the tubes are repackaged to be shipped back to the vendor. Computers, TV screens, and things like that go into the trash. We’re not mandated to separate them right now. We just had a program with one of the local companies to collect old computers. I think computers will go the way of white goods that we now collect separately; we not only recycle the metal, but also recycle the Freon.”
The toleration for collection trucks belching smoke or dripping liquids will continue to shrink in the near future. Regulations that reduce the amount of vehicle emissions, whether from tailpipe or tailgate, are currently being developed across the country. In southern California, a series of air-quality rules is being proposed that would require vehicle fleets of more than 15 units to purchase alternative-fuel vehicles only. While significant strides have been made toward improving the effectiveness of alternative-fueled engines, there is still much research needed to make sure that the engines are reliable. Alternative fuels include natural gas, electricity, and propane, although the most practical applications so far use either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG).
“Natural-gas engines have been around for a long time,” states James Chiu, senior research engineer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX. “There are two major stumbling blocks for natural-gas engines. One is that you have to be able to get the fuel. The other is the extra cost of having the natural-gas equipment and the amount of energy you can store on-board a vehicle. In other words, how far you can go on a tank of compressed natural gas. You don’t get a whole lot of mileage out of that. You can use liquefied natural gas, but that’s even harder to come by than compressed natural gas. There’s not a natural-gas station on every corner like there are gasoline and diesel stations.”
Development of the fueling infrastructure is key to the expanded use of either CNG or LNG applications. “There are a couple of advantages for using natural gas in refuse haulers,” says Chiu. “One is that they generally go on local routes and come back to the central location. Since the fueling infrastructure isn’t in yet, you can have a central refueling location. Another is that refuse haulers are usually used in populated areas. Your pollution problems are usually in populated areas, so that makes an ideal solution for cleaning up the air since the trucks are actually used in the area where you have to clean it up.”
According to David Davis with MSW Consultants in Murrieta, CA, as a result of recent gyrations of fuel costs, the costs for alternative fuel and the infrastructure needed to support it might make sense. “One of the issues that will likely have a significant impact on collection systems in the next five to 10 years is the cost of energy. The cost of fuel and energy in this country is lower than in other parts of the world. For example, a gallon of gas in Europe costs $3-$4. Moreover, in that past 20 years, the cost of fuel has increased at a slower rate than the general rate of inflation. The current cost of energy is implicit in all of our economic assumptions about the break-even distances for transfer stations and the feasibility of rail haul. It is also implicit in our assumptions about the incremental cost of separately collecting and delivering to market recyclable materials. And the feasibility of landfill gas-to-energy is highly sensitive to the market cost of energy. If, in the next five years, the expanding global economy or unexpected global-political events cause the cost of energy to increase significantly, we might see more transfer stations, more co-collection vehicles, and more revenues from landfill gas projects.”
As communities nationwide experience frustration at the growing traffic-congestion problem, expect regional agencies to implement a variety of solutions, including possible time-of-day restrictions on when trucks may operate and routing restrictions to limit the movement of heavy trucks to specific corridors. Such Draconian restrictions on the movement of collection trucks could take the challenge of routing to new levels of impossibility. To offset these, increased usage of computerized routing and Global Positioning Systems that may allow a dispatcher to identify areas of congestion and reroute the trucks instantaneously in order to improve productivity will probably come into greater use.
“In every major city, we’ve outgrown our system,” states Doug Mass of Maple Leaf Disposal. “Rush hour is almost a continuous thing now. There are a couple of breaks in it, but you can be going home from a sporting event at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night down the Trans-Canada highway and it’s bumper to bumper. You’ve got to wonder where these people are going. The newer equipment that’s coming out is a technological change that is good for the industry because it’s going to save some fuel. But you can have the most fuel-efficient truck in the world, and if you can’t get through traffic, then it’s going to be burning up the liters of fuel. That’s going to challenge our market.”
Stricter attention to routing will offset some of the impacts on productivity that traffic congestion plays. “One of the things we’re trying to do is key the way the operators run their trucks to the landfill and MRF by setting their routes,” says Mahon. “We know the traffic patterns, so we’ll set their routes. We’ll say what route we want them to use to the landfill unless they’re told otherwise. Another thing we try to do is set the time we unload our trucks. If we’re bringing in trucks in the evening during the afternoon rush hour, we’ll bring them into the yard rather than trying to empty them so that we can empty them first thing in the morning at six when the traffic is lighter.”
While each of these areas will have a critical impact on the ways we collect waste in the future, hardly any of them is directly within the control of the waste industry itself. Diligence and attention to the regulatory activities going on around the industry will characterize the future. That means that it will no longer be just a simple matter of putting the truck in front of the cart, bin, or box and picking up the garbage.